by Pope Francis, Rider, 144pp, £9.99
Key Words of Pope Francis
by Cindy Wooden and Joshua McElwee, Bloomsbury, 224pp, £10.99
Two new books reveal the secret to Pope Francis’s popularity: it’s all about the Gospels. The first does this with the words of the Holy Father himself.
Our Father is a conversation between Pope Francis and prison chaplain Fr Marco Pozzo. The other is Key Words of Pope Francis, in which the National Catholic Reporter’s Joshua McElwee and Catholic News Service’s Cindy Wooden gather essays by Catholics (and non-Catholics) to explain some of Francis’s favourite words.
The Our Father book was the source of controversy a few months ago when Francis critics claimed that he wanted to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer when he said God leads us out of – and not into – temptation. The book, however, is a delight to read, with all the touches that make Francis so popular. He tells charming personal anecdotes, such as his surprise as a child when his father paid a cab driver. “I thought my dad owned all the cars in the city,” Francis says.
He includes telling pastoral stories, such as when a conference speaker said: “Sometimes I have to discipline my kids a little, but I never humiliate them.” To which Francis adds: “How beautiful! The father has a sense of dignity. He has to reprimand, but he does it in the right way, to correct behaviour, and then moves on.”
The Pope has a natural way of echoing the Gospels’ way of thinking. “I hope that in saying the Our Father every one of us will feel ever more loved, forgiven, bathed in the dew of the Holy Spirit, and will thus be able to turn in love and forgive every other brother, every other sister. This will give us an idea of what heaven is like,” he says. That’s a beautiful crystallisation of the Our Father – and Christianity.
How does he do this? Francis keeps his heart close to the Word of God. He wants you to, as well. Keep “a little Gospel in the purse, in the pocket”, he urges, and “read every day a passage of the Gospel … Never forget this, please. This action makes the life of God’s Kingdom sprout within us.”
In Key Words of Pope Francis, fine writers and thoughtful members of the hierarchy explain what words such as “careerism”, “worldliness”, “dignity” and “martrydom” mean in the context of Francis’s teaching.
The book has moments of important insight, for instance when Villanova University’s Massimo Faggioli recounts Francis’s brilliant analysis of religious bureaucratic tendencies but admits mere words might “disappoint those expecting a comprehensive overhaul”.
Simcha Fisher’s chapter brings out this beautiful image of love and duty from Amoris Laetitia: “We do not think of a mother primarily as powerful, or as feeding her child merely as an obligation,” she writes.
Fr James Martin finds a great way to look at discernment in prudential matters by comparing Benedict’s decision to resign with John Paul’s contrary decision.
But, in the end, this collection lacks the power of Francis’s book. Why? The essays don’t reject the Gospel. Instead, they violate its simplicity, as when an essay on clerical sex abuse declares: “It must be noted that for a response to clerical abuse that can satisfy the scrutiny of integrity and honesty, the Church itself must pass muster.” Huh?
The book’s choice of key words is questionable. They include “encounter” but not “Eucharist” (despite his daily Adoration hour) and “ecumenism” but not “evangelisation” (a fundamental Francis theme). “Service” is included, but not “sinner” (his answer to “Who are you?”). St Francis gets a chapter, but not the Pope’s favourite, Mary. “Women” is rightly included but not “Gender ideology,” where Francis really stands out. “Dialogue” is there – but not “rosary” or “Way of the Cross” (he keeps both in his pocket at all times).
Another shortfall of the book is how homogenous its authors are. Cindy Wooden says that the editors strived for diversity: “You’re not going to have a real discussion or a wrestling with issues that he has called for unless you’re honest.
Each of us have our own blind spots, our own culture, the way we were raised, that may prevent us from seeing another person’s point of view.” Exactly.
The book offers diversity of age and geography but not of point of view. Thus, it includes Bishop Robert McElroy, but not Archbishop Charles Chaput; Commonweal, but not First Things; and a leader from the Nuns on the Bus, but not the March for Life. That’s a shame. The Gospel is the real attraction of Francis, and of the Church – and it excludes no one.